Mangroves manhandled

Mangroves have been recognized as an important coastal ecosystem in Sri Lanka, but as the pressure of development grows more intense, the remaining patches of mangroves are being destroyed. Whose responsibility is it to protect them, asks Malaka Rodrigo

Douglas, a mangrove activist remembers how hard he tried to save a patch of mangroves in the Puttalam lagoon. As a group with political backing continued clearing the mangroves he went to the authorities seeking to halt the destruction.

The Police, the local Government Agent, Forest Department officers, all said it wasn’t their mandate to act. Some may have perhaps wondered why he was so bothered about some useless trees. But knowing the importance of mangroves, Douglas kept on fighting. Finally he found the correct authority - to his surprise that mangrove-rich land was under the purview of the Department of Transport.

Located adjacent to the Dutch Canal, during the colonial era when canals were used for transportation – this area too had been gazetted under the Transport Department. Even though the canals are no longer used for transportation, the ownership remained with them. “How come the fate of an important natural habitat like mangroves lies in the hands of the Department of Transportation?” asked an angry mangrove activist pointing out that we have only a handful of these important coastal habitats. “Not having an owning body or not having a guardian is just an encouragement for those who destroy the mangroves,” Douglas pointed out.

Prof. Mala Amarasinghe of the University of Kelaniya shared a similar experience. Working at NARA (National Aquatic Resources Agency) in the 1990s, she had tried to stop the destruction of a four-hectare mangrove patch in Kadolkele in Negombo. But those who had cleared the land for some commercial activity had the legal deeds and the environmentalists could only watch helplessly. Tracing back, Prof. Amarasinghe found that the land came under the ownership of Greater Colombo Economic Commission, GCEC, which has been assigned practically all state-owned "undeveloped" land for development.

Mangroves have not been considered worthy resources to be conserved, so they were taken as areas to be "developed," Prof. Amarasinghe points out. Until recently, even the Forest Department did not regard them as forests and in a conflict situation, no particular line agency would come forward due to the inadequacies of their jurisdiction.

The destruction continues. Niyas, a mangrove activist from Kalpitiya says that though the mangrove patches may look intact from a distance, inside, they have been cut down for various purposes. The destruction mostly happens on weekends and on holidays when the wildlife and forest department officers are not around. “Large scale mangrove destruction is always done by outsiders who are backed by the political powers,” says Karunasena, president of the Rekawa fishermen association.
A large area of mangrove in the Rekawa lagoon in the south coast had been cut down by outside parties and the authorities did not act fast enough to save them. There is a need to raise awareness further at the grass-root level, he says.

Jayampathy Samarakoon, a consultant on Mangroves addressing an IUCN forum recently likened mangroves to an orphan of nature in Sri Lanka’s coastal landscape. He pointed out that the mangrove has a parent – Mother Nature, but no guardian, at present, as the state does not take responsibility for this complex common pool resource. “Like orphans without guardians are frequently abused, the mangroves are also severely abused.” The scars are there for all to see and the repercussions in term of lagoon fishery collapse and flooding will soon follow, he warned.

A mangrove nursery

The setting up of shrimp farms a decade ago devastated several mangrove lands. The inter-tidal zones where mangroves are abundant were seen as the best areas to set up prawn farms and mangroves were axed for the sake of the dollars prawn export was expected to bring to Sri Lanka. But shrimp farming collapsed and experts now found out the inter-tidal zone closer to the sea is not the best for prawn farming. Mangroves could have been saved, had there been proper advice at the inception.

The lack of clear ownership over most of the remaining lagoon ecosystems also poses other dangers. It is not only cutting of the mangroves, but also planting them. After the tsunami, mangroves had been projected as a good barrier against powerful sea waves as they have the ability to absorb the disruptive power of a wave. Millions of rupees were channelled to mangrove replanting projects, but how successful have they been?

“90% of the mangrove planting projects after the tsunami are a failure,” says Prof.L.P. Jayathissa of University of Ruhuna. Most of the planting has not been done with a scientific base, he feels. The selection of plants has to be done carefully so as not to disrupt the existing ecological balance, for example the species of mangroves in the wet zone does not suit the dry zone lagoons. Planting mangroves blocking the mouth of the lagoons, without proper scientific consultation could also cause sedimentation that causes the lagoons to fill- this could affect fishery. On the other hand, carefully planted mangroves can boost lagoon fishery, he adds.

The remaining mangrove forests in the North and East, which still is a considerable area will be under huge development pressure in this post war era. Plans are already being laid for shrimp farms and salterns that will axe a considerable portion of the remaining mangroves in these areas. The recent destruction of mangroves around Kokkilai lagoon which was also part of a sanctuary highlights this danger. The Kokkilai case also highlights that only having a guardian or a protector is not enough to save the mangroves. By the time the authorities act, parts of the mangrove have already been destroyed.

Under the project Green Dyke undertaken by University of Ruhuna Prof. Jayatissa organized a national symposium recently to share the latest findings on Sri Lankan researche on mangroves and bridge the gap between academia and grass roots activists. All highlighted the need to have a single body of experts to coordinate conservation of mangroves in Sri Lanka. One hopes the Mangrove Expert Committee being set up under the Ministry of Environment will truly make an impact in saving the remaining mangroves.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka

Mangroves are salt tolerant plants that grow in inter-tidal zones near the coast. These areas are exposed to air at low tide and submerged at high tide making the soil unstable and low in oxygen. But mangroves are well-adopted to such conditions and have a root system known as breathing roots that grow upwards above the soil surface to get the atmospheric oxygen.

Mangroves can extract fresh water from the saline water and some have the ability to remove excess salts through special salt glands on leaves. The mangrove embryos grow first through the seed coat, and then out through the fruit wall while still attached to the parent plant which enables them to grow easily in hostile conditions.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka are composed of 20 species of true mangroves and 24 species of mangrove associates which is 1/3 of all mangrove species in world. The most extensive mangroves occur in the Puttalam – Kalpitiya area and the estuaries of the Eastern province.

Over-exploitation, habitat destruction, shrimp farms, pollution and invasive species threaten the remaining patches of mangroves in the island.

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